December 17, 2009

The crisis of COMMENT

Due to a short gap in Bury Art Gallery’s programme, a Crafts Council touring exhibition was brought in, called “Deviants”. Not being curatorially responsible for it, in fact knowing not much more about it than the title, I’d thought it an unusual opportunity to review an exhibition in Bury. It may also surprise you that my original degree is a craft degree – ceramics. I quickly gave that up because I got tired of having wet muddy hands, but the show felt that it should be familiar ground. It is; Deviants is a very small survey of crafts from the 1970s to 2000, so small, with so few objects, that the sweep of 30 years is like surveying a life by saying ‘Birth. Death’. When I was finishing my degree in 1982, since the sixties, ceramics had already divided into domestic wares/ceramic design, fine art ceramics – the one-off pot seeking some relationship of perfection of proportion, glaze or form, in the UK at least, influenced by the Japan and the pottery revival of Bernard Leach – and finally ceramic sculpture: this latter tended to be a rather fastidious sub-genre, because its practitioners had first trained as potters/’ceramicists’ and so rather than their work being sculptural, it was riven with Lilliputian scrutiny of surface or redundant formal enquiry. The most repetitive of which was the questioning of function – no self-respecting ceramic sculptor could resist ‘challenging accepted notions of function – ie tea pots that don’t pour, vorticist disruption of a coffee cup, porous or crawling glazes on domestic ware, etc: grandly claiming some glamour in ‘deviance’.

Deviants therefore represents this wing, it has to, given that this discourse was so endemic. I am not surprised to see it in the show; indeed, it gave me a sort of warm comforted feeling to be in such familiar if silly ground. Of course, it was also a dismal feeling that in the nearly 40 years since I was involved nothing much has happened. If this was all there was to say about the show, it probably wouldn’t be worth writing about it; and in fact, the show content is actually a digression from the issue which struck me as I viewed it.

Actually the biggest element of the display is a table with blank cards with punched holes at the top and the word COMMENTS printed. Backing the table a large board covers part of the wall. The board has a geometric grid of pegs and a large sign: DEVIANTS.

  • Before the show opened this board and configuration of cards had an aesthetic rigour which was quite attractive. But now it is open the board has filled up with ‘comments’. A flavour:

    Sean O’Brien (age 2 years) likes it here thank you. (accompanied by a child’s scribble)
    I love it.
    I really enjoy all the art
    This museum is cool by Grace Hogan (accompanied by a child’s drawing)
    Wayne from Old hall School had a great day today (smiley face)
    I love Gabby by Davy Cardiff
    I waz here: it’s only fun if you’re involved and included not left out and shut out cos you just don’t fit in to there little boxes
    Didn’t find this very interesting – Jordan
    I like this museum so much I want to come here for the rest of my life.

    I don’t usually waste anytime reading comments boards which are now ubiquitous in UK museums. I scanned this one because the exhibition designer had made the board such a large and integrated element of the show. Momentarily I found some of the comments vaguely interesting. The fact that Wayne from Old Hall School refers to himself by name rather than in first person and the way that ‘today’ magnifies his great day but also adds a hint of poignancy; the fact that some child wants to visit the gallery forever; the curiously excluded visitor – accumulatively was more interesting than any of the crafts objects in the show. To be honest, I have made the accumulation more interesting than it was because there were many more children’s squiggles – which are only of interest to their parents – and teenagers leaving their names or names of other youngsters they ‘love’.

So I couldn’t help wondering what was the curatorial point of this board, so specific an intrusion into the concept of crafts’ deviance. It is titled DEVIANTS but the act of comment implies conformity. Coincidentally, the same day I spent time in the show, I received a bulletin from the Arts Council of England, in part, announcing a new website wherein you can log on and share your feelings, COMMENT, on recent artistic experiences that you have enjoyed. The site showed that 197 people had COMMENTed so far, though as with Google I only looked at the first page. Although the user profile of the site is much older and more articulate than the COMMENTS board in DEVIANTS (or most other comments boards), the expressions on the site weren’t substantially much different. I was reminded of Lawrence Weiner’s comment that graffiti can be justified, engaged with as a discourse, if the graffitist says something; if they just scrawl their name they are simply manifesting an existential crisis.

What are these invitations to comment for? I presume that the website is the Arts Council’s ineffectual response to the sense of doom gathering as the arts are decimated by the economic crisis – it’s a form of petition, if it gets big enough it can be pointed to showing how important the arts are in people’s lives. The COMMENTS boards are slightly different because they don’t frame the invitation as either positive or negative. Primarily, comments that are left are from children or families – parents engaging in familial gesture of comment. This could be a self selecting mechanism because under the Central Cultural Imperative children and families are the most valued audience. To comment if you are a lone visitor could I imagine feel quite strange, intrusive somehow. What are the galleries/curators going to do with the comments? The ones that struggle above the non-verbal grunt, that are positive, will go into the evaluation that shows that the exhibition was useful to its audience. The audience will also be counted; probably surveyed too, if possible, so their geography, ethnicity, social class can be monitored. All this will prove that the arts are reaching the people who need them most: hovering unasked the frequently recurring question of the relationship of the artist (poet) to the audience (not the audience to the artist).

The Bury Arts & Museums Service will shortly be inspected to see if the governmental bureaucracy finds it not failing – this may not be a shoe-in because the criteria is the same one that is used for everything from refuse collection to highways maintenance; so it has a checklist of questions which the Service must provide evidence to prove itself. These inspections can only measure failure, of course, because such a system could not recognise the innovation or creativity which would characterise a gallery which had cultural value. I also find it interesting that targets are set for user satisfaction, but inspectors never consider artists as ‘users’. (Any artists who have ‘used’ Bury Art Gallery are welcome to COMMENT toward the inspection, by the way). The system assumes only the consumers of cultural objects have measurable value, not the producers. The audience of children and their handlers, their vacuous COMMENTS bear no relationship to the work on display – even paper-thin ne’er progressing vorticist teapot. They either ‘love it’, ‘hate it’, ‘love someone they know’, scribble, or write their names: right there in art galleries themselves the crisis has become a cultural object.

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